1. What is an indigenous people?
Indigenous communities, peoples and nations generally meet the following criteria:
- Temporal criterion: Indigenous peoples are the “first” inhabitants of a region; they lived in the respective region before the arrival of colonists or dominant communities.
- Cultural distinctiveness: They maintain their cultural distinctiveness (language, community organisation, religion, spiritual values, production methods and institutions) and are different to the dominant community. They feel culturally and spiritually bound to their land since time immemorial, and their traditional way of life depends on this land and usage thereof.
- Self-identification: Most of the persons concerned are of the view that they belong to a different people or group and see themselves as “indigenous”.
- Marginalisation: Most of these peoples have long suffered from oppression, dispossession, marginalisation, exclusion or discrimination, even to the point of forced displacement and extermination in extreme cases.
The STP bases this on the definition provided by José R. Martinez Cobo, Special Rapporteur of the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities, on refinements made by Erica-Irene Daes, long-term Chair of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations, and on descriptions from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.
2. Which characteristics do indigenous peoples share?
Indigenous peoples share a special relationship with their living environment and with nature in general. They are characterised by cultural traditions, customs and forms of social organisation that differ from those of the dominant population group.
Most indigenous communities have been in contact with dominant communities for a long time. This often leads to a shift in values, entailing restriction or even loss of their traditional way of life.
Many indigenous communities maintain time-honoured traditions. Young members of some indigenous communities increasingly seek contact with the outside world, wanting to study and to integrate into the “modern” world.
3. How many indigenous peoples exist in the world?
There are around 370 million persons, in 70 countries, who identify as belonging to an indigenous people. Over the years, many indigenous peoples have been wiped out – for instance by diseases that the colonial rulers spread, or because of a targeted policy of annihilation.
4. What are indigenous peoples’ main problems?
During colonisation, indigenous peoples were often dispossessed of their land, with fatal consequences for them, as they depend on their land as a means of maintaining their livelihoods and securing their existence. In certain regions, colonial national borders have divided nomads’ traditional grazing lands, with ramifications similar to those of dispossession. Indigenous peoples often live in resource-rich regions, which can, in particular, bring them into conflict with large corporations seeking to exploit those resources. Corporations often drive indigenous peoples away with state help, or subject them to intense pressure to accept industrial activities on the land.
Many indigenous peoples constantly have to fight for acceptance of their way of life. Indigenous peoples are among the most disadvantaged and marginalised in the world. They are pressured by governments to “develop” and, for example, to stop resisting industrial activities in their region. Commercial players put indigenous peoples under pressure if they fight against destructive activities. The dominant community often subjects them to racism or even violence. Certain non-governmental organisations often instrumentalise indigenous peoples for their own purposes as well though, be it for nature reserves or for their political struggles. Thus, indigenous peoples become a pawn of the powerful, which costs them their tradition, culture and sometimes even survival.
5. Do resolutions or conventions protect indigenous peoples’ rights?
On the 13th of September 2007, the UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This acknowledges their right to self-determination, as well as their right to freely maintain their institutions, cultures and traditions, and to pursue further development thereof. Activities in indigenous peoples’ regions may only take place if the indigenous peoples have freely consented on the basis of complete information before the land is used (free, prior and informed consent – FPIC). This principle has become a key tool for the protection of indigenous rights, particularly with regard to commercial projects in indigenous peoples’ regions.
The declaration sets out comprehensive rights for indigenous peoples and has thus become a point of reference. However, it is non-binding.
The International Labour Organisation’s Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention of 1989 (ILO 169) is also highly significant. Basic rights of indigenous peoples, such as the right to their own territory, way of life, culture and language, are anchored in this convention. It also demands FPIC (consent, see above) in certain circumstances, such as relocation. To date, only 22 states have ratified this convention (as of 18/10/2010).
One major goal of the STP, and of many indigenous peoples and organisations, is for the rights mentioned in the aforementioned accords to be integrated into the respective national laws, so that they become legally binding.
In addition, individual indigenous persons, like everyone else, have rights assigned to them by other relevant instruments of international law, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (protection of indigenous knowledge), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UN Charter.
6. What do indigenous peoples demand?
In general, indigenous peoples demand their land rights, observance of the rights of indigenous communities and individuals as stipulated by international law and by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in particular, and an end to marginalisation. They want to be able to decide for themselves how to live their lives, today and in the future.
Many demands that arise in specific cases of conflict with firms, governments or organisations can be characterised as follows:
- Indigenous peoples want to decide what happens in their region. This includes the right to refuse or allow usage thereof on the part of outsiders and to have a say in how such usage is to occur.
- Indigenous peoples want minimisation of harm to their environment.
- Zones defined by indigenous peoples must remain completely untouched (sacred and forbidden areas, ceremonial sites, graves etc.).
- Jointly negotiated compensation should be paid for any damage.
Part of any profit should be invested in the communities (benefit sharing).
7. What is a minority?
The term “minority” refers to a group of persons who, due to their nationality, ethnicity, religion, culture or language, are isolated or ostracised by other population groups in their state. The minority is usually dominated by a majority. It often has to fight to maintain or develop its identity. In most cases, indigenous peoples can also be described as minorities.
8. Which problems are minorities confronted with?
Structural or systematic problems within a state make it difficult for minorities to participate in decision-making processes. These also give unjustified advantages to the dominant population group in commercial, social and political domains, whereby the minority is again discriminated against.
9. Which consequences does marginalisation of minorities have for the state?
Social, financial and political inequality between population groups is a breeding ground for conflict. Equality between all population groups, social justice, and fair participation for everyone in decision-making processes should be promoted, in order to prevent conflict.
10. How are minorities’ rights protected on an international level?
The UN General Assembly adopted a Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National or Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities in a 1992 resolution. This is the only UN instrument which specifically addresses the rights of minorities.
Besides this, regional accords on the protection of minorities exist, e.g. the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities adopted by the Council of Europe.
Indigenous peoples, as a special kind of minority, are protected by various international conventions, some of which are binding (see question 5).